On migrant workers

Develop immigration policy suitable for multiracial era

Koreans might have to be more aware of potential language barriers when ordering in restaurants starting next year.

On Monday, the government said it would expand the industries where foreign workers with non-professional employment visas (E-9) can work, including hospitality, mining and forestry.

Only Koreans and Korean Chinese have, so far, done restaurant-based jobs. Currently, the government allows unskilled migrant laborers to work in four areas: farming, fishing, manufacturing and construction. The latest move aims to fill numerous vacancies in the service sector.

Korea will bring in 165,000 migrant workers next year, up sharply from 120,000 this year. The number stood at 52,000 in 2021, meaning that the nation needs a foreign workforce over three times larger than three years ago. That’s hardly surprising. This country’s birthrate threatens to drop below 0.7, and nearly one in every five Koreans is 65 or older.

However, Korean and foreign workers do not welcome the policy.

Labor unions criticize the government for not improving the work environment to induce more Koreans to join the job market. Unionists point to about 500,000 jobless Koreans aged 15-29 not seeking employment, as they call for better working conditions. Migrant workers are equally concerned. They warn that the influx of guest workers will result in adverse side effects, including abuse, if unaccompanied by steps to protect them.

They are right to be worried. The Yoon Suk Yeol administration slashed the budget for migrant worker support centers from 7.18 billion won ($5.35 million) this year to zero won in 2024. The Ministry of Employment and Labor says the central government will handle that job directly, but foreign workers doubt that. Guest workers visit these centers on weekends as they have no or few days off during weekdays. However, government offices are not open on weekends. How can foreigners seek support, then?

Abuse of migrant workers has long been a problem in Korea.

Their long-overdue wages have exceeded 120 billion won, accounting for 12 percent of all workers who didn’t get paid. Two Cambodian farm workers froze to death during a winter cold spell a few years ago while living in makeshift shelters built by their employer. Early this year, two Vietnamese

brothers fell to their deaths at a building site, but officials didn’t explain the details to the bereaved family. Not all Korean employers are harsh, and extreme cases make headlines. Still, one can’t deny abuses and discrimination against foreigners amid official acquiescence.

Due to the Yoon administration’s fiscal stringency, the labor ministry might have had no option but to sacrifice expenditures for these support centers. Korean workers are unhappy with the Yoon administration’s economic policy that they claim favor the haves rather than the have-nots. But migrant workers cannot complain.

On behalf of these workers, their governments seem to have taken action. According to the Hankyoreh newspaper Thursday, eight Asian countries expressed concerns about the virtual closure of these support centers. The labor ministry said these were simple inquiries, but their embassies in Seoul said they were genuinely concerned. And they should be.

Migrant workers’ union leaders say that some Korean officials and employers still regard them as being disposable. Their complaints have grounds. The Seoul Metropolitan Government will bring in 100 foreign housekeepers on a pilot basis next year. Mayor Oh Se-hoon says their monthly wages should not exceed 1 million won, half of the minimum wage, to produce any “policy effects.” Oh revealed his ignorance of the importance of housework and discrimination against foreigners.

In contrast, Japan has succeeded in introducing foreign domestic helpers. Tokyo gave them equal wages, limited their work to housekeeping and not caring for children, and guaranteed their privacy.

Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon says Korea must set up an immigration agency. He recently proposed the government turn E-9 visas into E-7-4 visas for foreigners who “can speak fluent Korean and worked hard for 10 years here by themselves.” A migrant worker said they can’t master the Korean language due to overwork. The worker asked, “Will Minister Han work overseas for 10 years without his family to get a visa for skilled work?”

In this era of low birthrates and declining populations in industrial countries, attracting foreign talent is key to the aim of continued growth. Korea cannot build a superior foreign workforce unless its leaders change first.






The Korea Times Co.